Monday, March 14, 2011

Music Monday: A Day at the Races

Although they won't hit North America until May (for Brian, I guess), the UK (and who knows where else) are getting remastered versions of Queen's albums right about now, and as a result I came across this review of what is my favorite Queen album, "A Day at the Races."

You should be aware that "my favorite Queen album" is not an altogether meaningless distinction, coming as it does from someone who has at times been positively obsessed with this band. I was a Johnny-come-lately, not discovering Queen until Wayne's World (which I didn't actually see) and, while I was in Canada on a Spring Break trip with the French Club, the televised Freddie Mercury tribute concert. I fell in love with "Bohemian Rhapsody." Who didn't? I nearly picked it up on the Wayne's World soundtrack, but instead I reasoned that if I liked this song so much, I might well like others by Queen. So I picked up Classic Queen and, in fact, did love just about everything on the album. So I picked up Greatest Hits. And from there it was just a small step to buying more or less every album they had released.

Lauren will tell you that I have a tendency to fixate on a band and listen just to them over and over, but she didn't even see me in high school. That was obsession. We had a six CD changer and it would be filled with Queen--the real decision being which six albums would make the cut. The thing about Queen was not just that they were a phenomenally talented band, though that was surely part of it. As a band and choir geek, I could appreciate the complexity of what they were doing, and that was part of it too. The thing about it, too, was that most songs on any given album were very good. If you only know Queen's hits, you're really missing out.

And now we're starting to get at why A Day at the Races is my favorite Queen album. There are certainly reasons why A Night at the Opera, its predecessor that included "Bohemian Rhapsody" along with what is surely one of the most amazing songs--from a musical perspective--that they wrote, "The Prophet's Song." Yet there are enough songs on that album that don't do it for me in a way that isn't true of A Day at the Races.

I've often used A Day at the Races as an introduction to Queen. The album opens--and closes--with a sort of overture that alludes to the 7th song on the album, "White Man," before building in stair-step fashion to the opening track, a rocker that became a hit, "Tie Your Mother Down." The introduction, though, speaks to the concept of unity (well, of sorts), or at least the conception of the album as an album in a way that most are not today.

The rocker, though, is followed by a sweet, soulful piano ballad that (so I learned from the review I referenced earlier) is all Freddie, right up to the overdubbed vocal harmonies. It's a sweet, beautiful love song, with haunting piano figures and just a bit of musical complexity to contrast its basic, simple nature.

Each song on the album, despite what I said earlier about some kind of unity, is a contrast from each song that's come before, as does "Long Away." It was written and sung by Brian May, and it's a fairly straightforward guitar-and-vocals song (I'm afraid my descriptive powers fail). It's a nice enough song, reflective and a bit melancholy while still thrumming along--not too heavy, not too light.

"The Millionaire Waltz" is simply incredible, though I'm sure quite overlooked. It's something of an oddity, but just so brilliantly executed. I mean, it's a waltz. Who does that? Sometimes it's driven by piano, sometimes by guitars. Its stylistic shifts are not so pronounced as "Bohemian Rhapsody," but it has the same creative genius behind it. It's also a song that really shows off the fact that Queen was made up of musicians. This is a song of shades, of changes both gradual and abrupt in musical texture, in dynamics, in its push and pull... just brilliant. And, for me, it's sometimes the little touches that do it for me, and in this song, it's the utterly perfect use of triangle. Seriously.

The mood shifts to something a bit more straight-forwardly pop with its rolling piano. And it leads well into one of the biggest hits from the album, "Somebody to Love," with its gospel sensibility and layered textures. This is a song that I imagine everyone knows, so I don't know that there's much to say about it. The song that follows is another less-known song, but probably the most musically powerful. It doesn't have quite the same richness and depth as either "The Millionaire Waltz" or as the song it's most easily compared to from the previous album (which is to say "The Prophet's Song"), but it's musically quite powerful. At the beginning, the guitar reminds me--incongruously--of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," because in both there is a latent power to the chords underlying what is a soft statement. Soon enough, however, the guitars turn driving and louder, crescendoing to a climax that is staggering. At the same time, the lyrics are some of the deeper and more--I'm not sure the right word is political--broadly social lyrics in the band's output, dealing as they do with the treatment by European settlers and their American descendants of the Native Americans. It concludes with the poignant criticism of the "White Man": "What is left of your dream? / Just the words on your stone. / Man who learned how to teach then forgot how to learn."

And then, the air clears and we have a song that's just flat out fun and sexy with "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy." It's hard to be in a bad mood when listening to this song.

And then there's "Drowse," on of my favorite Roger Taylor songs. I know a lot of people like "I'm in Love with my Car" from A Night at the Opera, but it doesn't do anything for me. It's softer than anything else Taylor was behind, more thoughtful and, ultimately, better for me.

Finally, there "Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together)." It's a nod to their success touring in Japan as well as a stirring anthem, and beautiful.

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